Holiday Party Legal Troubles

5 Ways Your Holiday Party Can Lead To Legal Trouble

December 20, 2018

‘Tis the season for office holiday parties. Utilize these tips to limit your company’s exposure to potentially costly lawsuits that arise from this otherwise festive occasion.

Warning: This article is a buzzkill.

1. Don’t Call It a “Christmas” Party

As we all know, Christmas is tied to Christianity. It’s possible that not all your employees are Christian and might not want to attend a party celebrating Christmas. State and Federal laws protect employees who are discriminated against because of their religion. Discrimination does not simply mean the employee was harassed because of his or her religion. Discrimination also includes limiting an employee’s benefits (like promotions or raises) because of religion. If the Christmas party is mandatory, and the employer takes note of who is there and who isn’t, and bonuses, salaries, or benefits are tied to making an appearance, this could be perceived as employment discrimination against those who are forced to go if they are not Christian.

2. Don’t Make Attendance Mandatory

Aside from the possibility of religious discrimination, a mandatory party may be categorized as an essential office function. This means the employees are working overtime if they are non-exempt and have already put in their 40 hours that week. Employed time includes all time during the day when the employee is necessarily required to be on duty at a particular place and time. If the party is on Friday evening or the weekend, attendance is mandatory, and the employees have already put in their 40 hours, the employer may be liable to pay overtime.

3. If You Are Serving Alcohol, Monitor Those Who Have Had Too Many Drinks

Alcohol is a social lubricant. It makes people say things they normally wouldn’t say and do things they normally wouldn’t do when sober. This includes employees telling crude jokes, making inappropriate sexual comments, or touching others where they don’t want to be touched. These are textbook definitions of a hostile work environment and sexual harassment. It is difficult for the employer to monitor everyone’s actions and alcohol consumption. But the employer, supervisors, and managers still have an obligation to prevent or stop harassment if they know it is happening, even at the party.

4. If You Are Having The Party At The Office, Be Aware Of Dram Shop Liability

Sometimes the best place to host the office party is at the office. Food and drink are catered to the office and employees are allowed to drink and eat as much as they want. Hosting a social gathering creates liability for providing alcohol to employees under 21, incompetent, or obviously intoxicated. It’s called dram shop liability (you should really read more about it). The short version is that social hosts, like the employer hosting its employees at the office, may be liable if one of the employees leaves the party and injures another person. This could be an intoxicated driver causing a crash or an intoxicated patron causing a fight in a bar.

5. Don’t Serve Alcohol To Minors

If the party includes children, teenagers, or employees under the age of 21, make sure someone is monitoring the booze. This tip seems so basic, yet it is very often ignored in North Dakota. Knowingly serving alcohol to minors is a crime. The office party is not a place to relax the rules on underage drinking. An employer has a duty to make sure minors are not consuming alcohol at the party. Don’t want the hassle of playing a cop? Then don’t allow minors at the party.

Bonus Tip: Don’t Hold Your Holiday Party On Christmas Eve

Only bad things can come of this.

I am one of the business law and employment law attorneys at SW&L. If you have questions related to employment law, email us using the contact form below or call 701-297-2890.

The information contained in this article and on this website is for informational purposes only and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. You should contact an attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.